Skip to main content
A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN 73
Alexei, who had paid no attention to her up till now,
became ashamed of his nakedness.
"Never mind, Alexei, lad, never mind," Grandad
Mikhail said reassuringly. "It can't be helped. We've got
to do this job with you. I've heard that in Finland men
and women take their bath together. What? It's not true?
Perhaps they told me a lie. But Varya, here, she is some-
thing like a hospital nurse now, tending a wounded
soldier, so there is nothing to be ashamed of. Hold him,
Varya, while I take his shirt off. Goodness, it's quite
rotten! It's falling to pieces!"
Alexei saw a look of horror in the young woman's
large, dark eyes. Through the swaying curtain of steam
he saw his own body, for the first time since the catas-
trophe. On the golden straw lay a human, skin-covered
skeleton with prominent knee-caps, angular^ pelvis, an
absolutely hollow abdomen, and sharply outlined ribs.
The old man stirred the alkali water in the bucket,
dipped the bast sponge into the grey, oily liquid and
raised it over Alexei's body. Through the hot steam he
caught sight of the emaciated form lying on the straw
and his arm remained in the air holding the sponge.
"Good Lord!" he exclaimed. "You are in a shocking
state, Alexei! You are in a bad way, I say. What? You
managed to get away from the Germans, but will you
And suddenly he turned angrily upon Varya who was
supporting Alexei's back.
"What are you staring at a naked man for, you hussy?
What are you biting your lips for? You women, you're
all alike! And you, Alexei, don't think about anything,
don't worry! We won't let that fellow with the scythe
get at you. That we won't! We'll nurse you back to health,
put you to rights. Take my word for it!"
Carefully and deftly, as if he were handling an infant,
he washed Alexei down with the alkali water, rolled him
on his sides, pouring water over him, and rubbed with
such vigour that his hands positively squeaked as they
slipped over the protruding ribs.
Varya helped him in silence.
But the old man had had no reason for scolding her.
She was not looking at the frightful, gaunt body that was